Flash back to 1992.
No, make that 1991. I’ll get to 1992 in a minute.
A book, which would change the future of Kansas for almost a quarter century, was published in 1991. It was called “Savage Inequalities.”
One sentence from the book, by Jonathan Kozol, sums it up: “The property tax is the decisive force in shaping inequality of schools.” The book about education became the “bible” for many legislators, particularly those in leadership positions. And it underpinned a statewide revolution.
The following year, 1992, a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and a Democratic governor, Joan Finney, with an overall rural-dominated Legislature, passed what I called then and still call today an anti-Johnson County school finance formula. The goal was to limit the funding of some districts, so that the state could afford to bring all the others up.
It abandoned the local property tax as the way to pay for schools and, instead, collected most school funds by income and sales taxes. Then, the money would be disbursed from Topeka in a formula that rewarded rural and poor districts and punished districts like Shawnee Mission.
Every one of the 23 Johnson County legislators, except one, voted against it. (The exception was a young Republican State Rep. Mark Parkinson, who later would switch parties and become governor.) But, Johnson County legislators were overwhelmed in the Legislature. The county simply did not have much clout in Topeka.
Fast forward to now.
The Legislature has finally decided to ditch the formula that, in addition to punishing wealthier districts, had become monstrously complicated. The goal is to create a new formula in two years.
In the meantime, lump-sum block grants will be sent to each district. Shawnee Mission School District and Blue Valley School District have endorsed the block grants. Olathe School District has not taken a firm position. Without the block grants, Shawnee Mission was looking at multimillion-dollar cuts in its budget.
Unlike the vote in 1992, in this case, all of the state senators from Johnson County voted in favor of the block grants, along with the vast majority of Johnson County state representatives.
The dissenters, mostly from northeast Johnson County, said they opposed the block grants because the bill was too hastily passed and because they do not believe the state should move to block grants without having a new formula already in the works. Some believe a new formula will never be written. I do not agree. In fact, new ideas are already emerging.
There will be a new formula, and this time Johnson County has clout.
Because of Johnson County’s explosive population growth over the last 23 years, the county now sends 34 legislators to Topeka, about 20 percent of all state legislators. Many Johnson Countians hold leadership positions.
This is a critical fact. Not only will Johnson County legislators help craft the formula, but Johnson County superintendents will likely be at the table with them.
Of course, nothing good can come of any formula if it is not adequately funded.
The cost-per-pupil today is about where it was in 1992, after increasing substantially, and then getting cut several years in a row. The funding is inadequate, and legislators must realize that.
The courts may halt the block grants because a panel of judges has said they do not think current funding is adequate, and, therefore, might be unconstitutional. A major lawsuit undoubtedly will end up in the Supreme Court.
Hopefully, the courts will allow the block grants to be implemented while the lawsuit works its way through the judicial system. If, instead, the same old formula were used, Shawnee Mission, in particular, would see its budget devastated.
With the block grants, or with any new formula, it is possible there could be winners and losers. But if funding were increased, all schools could come out better.
Johnson County schools, particularly Shawnee Mission, have gotten the short end of the stick for 23 years.
So, it would be nice for a change, if schools in Johnson County were allowed to pursue excellence, unimpeded.
To reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to email@example.com.